A word on the ‘well-spoken’
One morning while trying to knock out my inbox full of emails, I overheard a conversation that made me pause. A manager nearby was describing a job candidate he had recently interviewed. He described the candidate as smart (always a good attribute for any job), experienced (this helps with training and expectations), and well-spoken. Instantly, I knew that this candidate is African-American. How do I know this? Because in all of my many years of living in Baltimore and working for global corporations, I have never heard the term “well-spoken” used to describe a person of any other ethnicity. “Well-spoken” is code for black in America.
I know the manager having this conversation was offering praise for this individual. I know that he was trying, like I try, to be fair and unbiased and inclusive in his management style and work practices. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is to make sure everyone is treated fairly. I understand in some small measure how things in the world are unfair to black people, who are often all lumped together as low-income people too. That’s another bias. I know that if you are black and you don’t get the job, the apartment, the mortgage loan or the promotion, you always wonder if it was because of your race or some other reason.
The discrimination our country is plagued with is sly. Many white Americans feel that they are not prejudiced. They work with black people, go to lunch with them, attend college with them and maybe even live next door to them — aka “I have black friends.” These white Americans don’t want black drivers pulled over by police at a higher rate than those of other races. They don’t want children in some schools to be educated less well than those in other schools. They don’t want a generation of young black men warehoused in prison for crimes that others are not jailed for. They don’t want black Americans targeted with voter ID laws to suppress hard-fought and hard-won enfranchisement.
With all of that common ground, there is still underlying bias because many white Americans are not comfortable and familiar with black people in their personal lives. White America doesn’t know how Black America celebrates holidays, cooks a meal, gets a haircut, worries about surviving a traffic stop or trains their children to behave in the world. White America doesn’t know what it’s like to have individual personal space challenged daily as Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his book “Between the World and Me.” White America really can’t even imagine it.
We don’t know the details of each other’s lives. Black America and White America have been comfortable in their separate worlds until recently. The school cafeteria table self-segregation (both black and white students do this), the church pews filled with people who all look alike no matter the denomination, and even Hollywood, which gears its movies toward specific races. They’re all examples of how we live in the same geographic country, but our personal experiences are worlds apart.
We all need to reach across this race line and invite those of other ethnicities into our lives. That means being in each other’s houses for dinners, for movie nights, for babysitting swaps and helping each other out on home repairs. It means knowing how both cultures deal with elderly parents, smug teenagers and babies who won’t go to sleep when you want them to. It might be uncomfortable at first to open ourselves up to the unfamiliar, but we have to try to stop making assumptions and determinations about what we really don’t know about each other.